No one I know who has seen Grizzly Man has found it less than interesting. Part of the appeal is surely the character of Timothy Treadwell: his spacey, mystical outlook on life, the glimmers of an everyday American that peek out from beneath his bizarre personality and lifestyle, and the tragic irony of his death.
Yet what sticks with me even more than Treadwell is the character of filmmaker Werner Herzog, in particular his comments about his disagreements with Treadwell’s view of nature. As Herzog says in the only lines in the movie to stay with me:
What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me there’s not such a thing as the secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.This weekend, I watched a documentary about one of Herzog’s films and found him speaking again and at length about merciless nature. I can’t but love a man who speaks of nature’s “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” Please do read on.
The documentary I saw is called Burden of Dreams, and it follows Herzog as he made his movie Fitzcarraldo in the early 1980s. Fitzcarraldo tells the story of a man at the beginning of the 20th century who is obsessed with opera and who dreams of building an opera house in Iquitos, a city in the jungles of Peru. To fund the construction, he attempts to harvest rubber from trees in a remote part of the jungle. To get to the trees, he drags an enormous steamship over a hill between two rivers.
Herzog insisted on enacting the scene for real in order to film it. No models. It is no surprise that dragging an enormous boat over a muddy hill in the jungle is not easy, no matter if it is 1901 or 1981. Burden of Dreams documents Herzog’s frustration as he deals with the elements, labor, and engineering challenges in steamy, remote jungle locations.
Speaking of the jungle, Herzog at one point in the documentary launches into a rambling monologue that makes the views he expressed in Grizzly Man seem reserved. Yet when I heard Herzog speak it was like hearing a reflection of my own thoughts and feelings. Me an’ Herzog are on the same page re: animals and nature, I think. Here is my transcription of Herzog’s speech:
(It is 10 times better to see his tired, sad eyes and hear his Teutonic accent and flat delivery as he speaks)
Of course, we are challenging nature itself and it hits back. It just hits back, that’s all. That’s grandiose about it and we have to accept it.
Kinski always says it’s full of erotic elements. I don’t see it so much as erotic. I see it more as obscenity. It’s just—nature here is violent, base. I wouldn’t see it as anything erotical. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away.
Of course, there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.
It’s an unfinished country. It’s prehistorical. The only thing that’s lacking is the dinosaurs here. It’s like a curse hanging on the entire landscape and whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here.
It is a land that God—if he existed—has created in anger. It is the only land where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at what is around us, there is a sort of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.
And we, in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we, in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. And we have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it.
But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It’s not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.